Heads `threaten teachers with death'

Fran Abrams reports on efforts to combat physical and verbal bullying of staff
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Bullying headteachers who make their staff ill by shouting at them in front of pupils, damaging their property and even hitting them, could face action, a teachers' union conference will be told today.

A growing number of teachers are becoming sick with worry because of pressures brought to bear as a result of increased competition, inspections and league tables, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers warn.

A report published at the union's annual meeting in Glasgow presents a catalogue of abuses to which members have been subjected.

One head scrawled the words "Dead, dead" on a teacher's desk in red chalk and hit another member of staff, the report says.

A teacher took her sick child into school wrapped in a blanket because she was so afraid to take time off, and another left after being bullied by a governor, who was also the parish priest.

In another case, an independent schoolteacher who refused the sexual advances of the head was so stressed by the incidents that she was off sick for a year before taking early retirement. Others claimed to have suffered nightmares for months after leaving their jobs and developed illnesses such as shingles and eczema through stress.

A survey of 3,500 teachers carried out by the union found that seven out of 10 had either been subjected to serious bullying or had witnessed the bullying of others.

The most common forms consisted of innuendo, sarcasm and being shouted at in front of colleagues or children. But two per cent of those who responded had suffered physical violence and damage to their property.

One male teacher in a special school said he felt powerless to deal with his head's increasingly violent and bizarre behaviour. "She physically hit one member of staff. She wrote `dead, dead' on my desk in red chalk. The woman was deranged, but no one wanted to deal with it. I consider myself tough, but she almost broke me," he wrote.

Another commented: "I can only describe the ethos of my school as like working for Idi Amin - I never know if I'm going to be smiled upon or be verbally `clubbed to death'."

A motion to be debated today will call for support for members who take concerted action against bullying. Such practices contravene health and safety laws and should not be tolerated, it says.

Jim Hughes, deputy head of Thamesmead Community College in Bexley, south- east London, blamed increased competition between schools for the problem.

"As a deputy head there are pressures on me to make sure that I am producing the goods. But I don't believe in any way that the method of dealing with it is by bullying," he said.

"You get the best from people by making them feel part of an organisation, by being positive and making them feel they are achieving something."

Addressing the conference yesterday, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, Don Foster, said calls by the chief inspector of schools for the sacking of bad teachers had also increased pressures.

"Far too many teachers are demoralised, suffering stress related illness, taking early retirement and bowed down by constantly changing demands and lack of support," he said.

Mr Foster also attacked plans by Labour to allow schools to borrow up to pounds 3bn from the banks to clear a backlog of repairs and maintenance.

An Essex headteacher described yesterday how his car went out of control when a disruptive 10-year-old who he was giving a lift home attacked him.

Julian Johnson, head of Templars Junior School and Support Centre in Witham, said that neither the seatbelt nor two minders who had accompanied the child were able to restrain him. The car was damaged in the accident, but no one was hurt.